From Nepal to Cincinnati: Budhi Lamichane
This is part of a three-part literary nonfiction series about the immigrant and refugee women who took a chance on a new life in Cincinnati. Check out From Syria to Cincinnati: Mariam Alzoubi and From Mexico to Cincinnati: Angelica Pérez.
We step out of the sunlight and into a bright apartment building. Shoes lie precariously in the hallway, ranging from bright reds and blues to classy blacks and browns. We walk up the stairs while laughter bounces off the walls as kids chase each other from one apartment to the next. When we arrive, Amsu Rajbhandari – husband of Heartfelt Tidbits founder Sheryl – knocks on the door. It swings open to reveal a petite woman with warm brown eyes and jet black hair. Amsu murmurs a greeting in Nepali.
Budhi welcomes us into her home and we settle into the large living room, furnished with a dining table that could comfortably seat eight people, and a muted striped sofa. Amsu explains to Budhi what Women of Cincy is, and we begin. At various points during the interview, trains rattle by the house, and we pause when they whistle their arrival. When they fade into the distance, Budhi continues, sharing with us her love story, journey, and the differences between the life she led in Nepal, and the life she’s created in Cincinnati.
I start with a simple question, “What do you like about the Cincinnati area?”
Amsu translates, and Budhi immediately laughs.
Chelsie chimes in with a smile, “Or if it’s easier, what do you not like?”
But we’ll get to those answers later.
The story, I think, starts 15 years ago, when Budhi’s husband, Moni, first saw her.
I picture Moni hanging out in his friend’s house, where on a worn table, scattered papers lay, containing names of various people, their photos, their likes, their dislikes, hobbies, interests, and school. These pages of information are called “Autos,” and they sound to me like paper Facebook profiles. In that pile was Budhi’s profile.
I think about Budhi in this moment, too. About the confusion and worry she must have felt as she wondered what – in her life – would unravel.
Moni thought, “Hey, I like this girl.” And for days, he stood outside her listed school and watched the students passing by in hopes that he’d catch sight of Budhi and have a chance to talk to her. When day after day she didn’t show, Moni finally realized that he had been waiting at the wrong school.
It’s such a classic romantic comedy scene: I picture a lanky, nervous, young Moni, hands stuffed into pockets as he realizes the dream girl might be out of reach.
But fast forward a little bit, and Budhi and her four sisters are trying to get a picture with a pretty background. Outside the school where Moni teaches, they find a patch of flowers. I imagine a blooming bush of brilliant orange marigolds, and the five girls debating over who should take the picture. Wanting everyone to be in it, one of Budhi’s sisters runs inside to grab Moni’s friend, and asks him to take the image. He walks outside, takes one, and then they all ask him to get into the picture, too. Knowing that Moni has been wanting to meet Budhi, the friend heads inside and asks Moni to take the picture of all of them.
“That was the first time they saw each other,” Amsu says.
But the girls left, raving about their pictures, before Moni ever had a chance to talk to Budhi. So Moni thought his next best option for an “in” would be through Budhi’s brothers. The only problem: She doesn’t have any.
Luck finally landed for Moni though, when Budhi needed help preparing for an exam. She went to Moni’s school, known for mathematics and science, and the principal pointed her to Moni.
After a year of dating – which Amsu explains to us pretty much means that people know they’ll be together forever – Moni declared his love to Budhi and talked to her parents. The whole time, never mentioning his Bhutanese refugee status.
The history of refugees from Bhutan to Nepal is a long one, one that started over 300 years ago, Amsu tells us.
Back then, Nepal and Bhutan were kingdoms and Bhutan, developing their infrastructure, needed skilled laborers to develop roads, build houses, and other constructions. The King of Bhutan went to the King of Nepal and asked if he would send some people to Bhutan for the work. This happened a number of times over the course of 20 years, and each time, the King of Nepal sent 40 families back to Bhutan.
Those Nepali families living in Bhutan grew in size, as each time someone became of age, they would move to Nepal to marry, and then would move back to Bhutan. The community, originally about 200 families, grew to half a million people. Then in the 1900s, the British took over and taught Nepali people about commerce, agriculture, and language. As a result, the Nepali-speaking people in Bhutan became influential and wealthy. Some even wealthier than the people ruling the country. And as their status grew, so did their role in politics, and that’s when the conflict between Bhutanese and Nepali-Bhutanese began in the 1980s.
Because of the growing tensions, Bhutan expelled over 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people. Those people settled into seven different camps in Nepal.
Once upon a time, America welcomed immigrants and refugees with open arms.
Not everyone in Nepal was happy with this arrangement. Some natives of Nepal believed that the Bhutanese refugees would take their jobs, and because the people from Bhutan looked the same, spoke Nepali, believed in the same religions, and had the same traditions, refugees would often leave the camp and merge into Nepali society flawlessly.
This is what Moni did. And worried about the discrimination that some refugees received, he told Budhi and her parents that he was from Darjeeling, a beautiful Indian town located in the Himalayan foothills and known for Darjeeling tea. Budhi’s parents, seeing that Moni was educated and working, gave him permission to marry their daughter.
Budhi didn’t find out that Moni was a Bhutanese refugee until their first child was nine months old. What happened was a series of events. First, Budhi packed her bags for Darjeeling, then they all traveled about forty minutes away to another city. There, they checked into a hotel, cleaned themselves up from traveling, and rerouted back along the same route. This whole time, Bhudi thought they were headed for Darjeeling. When they arrived at Moni’s home – the refugee camp – to see his parents, Budhi stepped out of the car and saw the bamboo huts. Moni had told her that he lived in a wooden house.
“So she was asking,” Amsu explains, “‘Hey, what's going on here?’ And then when they finally got to the place where the refugee camp was, she basically said, ‘This isn't Darjeeling.’ So that's where he came clean.”
I think about that moment. There must have been fear somewhere in Moni’s mind, as he admitted to Budhi that the stories of his childhood, about the tea plantations covering the hills against the backdrop of Mt. Kanchenjunga, were false. There must have been an undercurrent of apprehension as he waited for Budhi’s reaction. I think about Budhi in this moment, too. About the confusion and worry she must have felt as she wondered what – in her life – would unravel.
But I also think about the immigrants and refugees living now in the US, scared to share their stories about the homes and people they left behind. Once upon a time, America welcomed immigrants and refugees with open arms.
Budhi tells us softly that when she found out, she didn’t have a problem with Moni being a refugee. But she shares with us a memory: On one of her exams for school, she remembers a question asking, “What impact do Bhutanese refugees have on Nepal?” Stumped, she went home and asked Moni and his friend about the refugees and what they were. The two men looked at each other and died of laughter, but neither would tell her why.
So standing in the bamboo hut, in the camp Moni grew up in, Budhi learned everything. The wooden house he had described to her was real, but it wasn’t in Darjeeling or even in Nepal; it was in Bhutan.
Budhi continues to talk about the refugee camp, and living with her in-laws there. Amsu adds that these bamboo houses are slightly bigger than the room we’re sitting in now, a 15 x 30 foot room that contained a kitchen and sleeping area. Each house sat about 3 feet from each other. If one caught fire, others followed.
Sometime in the middle of the interview, Budhi’s 15-year-old son sits behind her on the couch, and listens in, adding to the stories. Every so often, he Googles something and shows us a picture to emphasize Budhi’s point. He pulls up an image of a bamboo house sitting between lush trees, and mountains in the distance. Then he pulls up an image of a recent fire.
They explain that fires happened often. A lot of the huts contained propane tanks to cook with, and if a fire started in a house with one, the tank exploded and caught the other huts on fire. Once, Budhi tells us, close to 300 huts went up in flames.
Her in-laws’ hut went up in flames, too, and Moni and Budhi’s place sat next to it.
“So after the fire had settled, the things that remained were the things that were made out of metal. So, some dishes, some pots and pans, and that's about it,” Amsu says. “What they had were the things they had on. So they had to start over.”
At the age of 35, it seems Budhi has started over a lot in her life. One of those new beginnings includes the move to Cincinnati, which Budhi tells us was for her kids. She believes the education system is better in America, where both her son and daughter have access to computers and are able to do research. But of all places, I wonder, why Cincinnati?
Amsu explains that many Bhutanese refugees and Nepali immigrants settle here because the community is well developed, housing is inexpensive, and jobs are available. Moni’s parents had already moved here by the time Budhi and her family arrived.
When asked about their arrival here, Budhi and her son laugh, and Amsu chuckles, “Oh, I think there’s a story here.”
Budhi animatedly describes their landing at CVG, how no one was there to explain what they should do. At the other airports, someone had waited to help them through checkpoints and translate. But in Cincinnati, they walked off the plane and didn’t know what to do. They waited for people to show up. But everyone waits outside the security line, so no one came. For one or maybe two hours, they stood in the terminal. Finally, she sent her son and husband to look for the caseworker from Catholic Charities that was to meet them. They didn’t see anyone.
The caseworker finally called inside, asking, "Are people here? The luggage is here but I don't see them."
So airport officials made a temporary pass to let the caseworker through to search for the family.
I cringe at that: Your first American burger was at McDonald’s? That sucks.
Budhi and her son now laugh at that experience, but I imagine they must have been worried, wandering around and trying to navigate a new culture.
“What was the moment like when they decided to move to the US?” I ask.
Amsu translates, and Budhi’s quiet voice fills the room. “So, she was happy when they found out they could go. But as the days for leaving got closer, she was feeling, okay, when can I come back? How am I going to come back? Can I even come back? ‘Cause she is leaving all her family behind… She has sisters, a mom, and dad, and they’re all still in Nepal.”
While this fear stayed in the back of her mind, moving to America was something to celebrate in their Nepali community. Amsu fills us in: “Her entire family was very supportive of her leaving because they perceived opportunities here in the US, especially in terms of education and so forth. So that hasn't changed. I mean, the reason I came here is for the same reason. And I moved here 30 years ago, this June, actually.”
Budhi and Moni had a party for everyone to celebrate, and even Moni’s relatives from India came to send them off. Neighbors gathered, friends arrived early and helped them prepare, and then when the dinner came, Budhi and Moni filled heaping plates with rice and various curries and passed them around for the guests.
Her son chimes in about that day and Amsu says, “He felt like, well, since he's leaving, he may not be able to see the places around. So he kind of did a little bit of a travel excursion close by – not very far – he says, before he left.”
Together, they describe what they had expected to greet them.
“So his experience is from when they watch movies,” Amsu translates as Budhi’s son talks. “A lot of these movies have high rises, so you think about living in high rises. So when they first arrived, they kind of came through downtown, and he fell asleep, and then he woke up and saw his standalone house and that it was small, so it was a little bit of a shock.”
Budhi says that it was a shock to her, too, and people explained that high rises exist in the US, but only in bigger cities. She was told to think of Cincinnati as a village as opposed to a city, like New York.
Other differences include the kitchen, which in America, is closed off to the elements and includes a four-burner stove instead of two. While the larger stove is handy for preparing meals for the whole family, spices are hard to cook with as the smell remains in the house and itches everyone’s throats. Having a running faucet makes things easier, though; in Nepal, Budhi and her family had to carry water to their house and also go to a separate building to use the restrooms.
In regards to food, Budhi’s son tells us that she loves Doritos, and we all laugh; after all, who doesn’t?
And in the midst of the amusement, he admits that he has tried a McDonald’s burger. Amsu adds with a smile, “Which his mom probably doesn't want to hear about ’cause it's beef, right?”
I cringe at that: Your first American burger was at McDonald’s? That sucks.
Chelsie agrees: “I owe you a burger, a good burger.”
We also get a good laugh when they explain their shock to find that Americans only use toilet paper after using the restroom.
“So to wipe with paper, they feel it's not exactly clean. It's a little bit different. Washing with water is actually cleaner,” Amsu says, “but it's a difference they are getting used to slowly.”
These cultural differences thin out though, when the similarities of the American melting pot and every other culture around the world shine through.
There’s a point during the interview when I think I parked in the wrong driveway, and everyone gets up and moves to the windows to check. As I head outside and the jingling car keys fade away, Chelsie continues to ask Budhi’s son about school, and I walk in right as she asks Amsu, “Does he have a girlfriend yet?”
We all burst out laughing as Amsu says, “I don’t know,” and then asks him. Budhi’s son grins. Amsu chuckles. “He’s not going to answer that in front of his mom.”
Budhi covers her mouth as she laughs.
“It’s the same everywhere,” Chelsie says.
And it’s true. Despite the snowy mountain tops, the bamboo huts, and the spicy-sweet scent of curry, at the core, we’re all the same.
There are some things we will never tell our parents.